The lead attorney and plaintiffs who sued the city of Atlanta over the botched 2009 raid of the Atlanta Eagle, a gay bar, praised the settlement agreement signed by a federal judge today. But they continued to stress that their lawsuit should not have been necessary to force Atlanta police to change unconstitutional policies.
"This is a wonderful change for the city of Atlanta — to get the Atlanta Police Department to follow the law," lead attorney Dan Grossman said in an interview this afternoon. "It's really a shame it took a lawsuit to make the APD follow the law."
Richard Ramey, co-owner of the Atlanta Eagle, echoed Grossman's sentiments.
"I feel vindicated and relieved. I feel that everyone in the city, from the mayor to the city council, realized something went wrong," he said.
Plaintiffs praise settlement in lawsuit over Atlanta Eagle gay bar raid
U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Batten signed the settlement agreement between the city of Atlanta and plaintiffs earlier today, lifting a gag order that had kept both sides mum on the case in recent weeks.
The Atlanta City Council voted 14-0 on Monday to approve the settlement that included the $1.025 million monetary payout to the plaintiffs as well as ordering the Atlanta Police Department “to take certain actions in regard to their standard operating procedures” in the wake of the raid and lawsuit.
“When cops break the law, the police department should want to discipline them — as a matter of good government. Mayor Reed should have wanted to make these changes — you shouldn’t have to have a federal judge order you to do that,” Grossman said.
The settlement resolution includes $1.025 million to go into an escrow account with Lambda Legal, one of two nonprofit legal groups that Grossman in representing the Eagle plaintiffs. The Southern Center for Human Rights also joined the case. Patrons of the Atlanta Eagle filed the federal lawsuit against the city and dozens of Atlanta Police Department officers in November 2009 following the botched raid of the gay bar on the night of Sept. 10, 2009.
Grossman said the plaintiffs’ attorneys would not comment on how the money would be distributed.
The lawsuit stated the Atlanta Police Department and its Red Dog unit violated the patrons’ federal and state constitutional rights by illegally detaining them, searching them without warrants and using anti-gay slurs during the raid.
Atlanta Eagle patrons alleged they were forced to lie face down on the bar’s floor the night of the raid as members of the APD¹s Red Dog Unit searched them for drugs and ran background checks on them using their ID cards. Eight people were arrested and charged with operating an adult establishment without proper city permits. The raid occurred on the bar’s once popular “Underwear Night” in which dancers clad in underwear entertained patrons.
Police stated the raid came after a months-long investigation following complaints to former Mayor Shirley Franklin’s office of illegal sex taking place at the bar. No one was arrested that night for illegal sex or possession of drugs. A trial of the “Eagle Eight” occurred in Municipal Court in March. Charges against several of those arrested were dismissed during the trial while three others were found not guilty.
‘I thought we were going to get robbed’
Geoff Calhoun, the first plaintiff listed on the lawsuit, was playing a video game at the Eagle the night of the raid when plainclothes officers told him to hit the floor. He at first thought it was going to be a fight. Then two Red Dog Unit officers came in and ordered him to floor.
“At first I felt fear — I thought we were going to get robbed. Afterwards I had fear for awhile but then it turned into anger,” Calhoun said this afternoon. “Their (the police) actions were so blatantly jacked up with no regards to anyone’s life.”
Calhoun is a dispatcher for the Smyrna police department and said it was at first difficult for him to sign on to be a plaintiff because he works with police officers every day.
“I wondered what the officers would think of me, if they would think I had a vendetta against them. But they were very supportive and offered a lot of support,” he said. “The case was much bigger than me and bigger than Atlanta.”
Calhoun described the settlement as “a relief.”
“I’m glad it’s over. I’m glad Atlanta finally did what was right,” he said.
Under the terms of the settlement, the Atlanta Police Department is required to make specific changes and conclude an investigation into the officers involved in the raid within 180 days.
According to court documents: “The City of Atlanta agrees permanently to revoke or amend all Atlanta Police Department SOPs, Command Memoranda, and any other policies, including but not limited to SOP.3020 § 4.3.1(2) (regarding warrantless searches), SOP.3030 (regarding arrests), and SOP.3065 (regarding investigatory detentions and frisks without reasonable articulable suspicion), which contain provisions that are inconsistent with the following constitutional requirements.”
The settlement agreement also requires the police to conduct an additional investigation into the raid and officers’ actions that night.
Police Chief George Turner will get to decide who conducts the investigation, according to Grossman, the plaintiffs’ attorney. This is separate from the OPS complaints filed by the patrons last year shortly after the raid.
“They are going to have to reach conclusions they haven’t previously wanted to reach,” Grossman said.
Many of the specific changes required deal with how officers may conduct themselves during raids and investigations, including that officers may not lawfully detain any individual “without reasonable articulable suspicion, particularized to the person being detained,” officers may not demand identification from a person without reasonable suspicion that he or she has committed a crime, and that individuals may not be frisked without a reasonable belief that that particular individual is “both armed and presently dangerous.”
Officers are also required to wear visible name badges and provide their name and badge number when requested by citizens.
For more on the specific changes, please click here.
Other ongoing investigations
The lawsuit settlement also does not fully resolve all of the fallout from the raid, which shocked LGBT Atlantans and drew comparisons to the 1969 raids on New York City’s Stonewall Inn that sparked riots and the modern gay rights movement.
And while the APD and city leaders have taken steps to rebuild trust with Atlanta’s gay community, including appointing a second police LGBT liaison officer and an LGBT citizen advisory panel, the wound caused by the raid could take years to heal.
The police department has not yet released results of its investigation into complaints filed with the APD Office of Professional Standards about the raid, and the independent Citizens Review Board also continues to investigate police actions that night.
Chris Lopez, a bartender at the Eagle who was arrested during the raid, also filed a separate complaint with the city of Atlanta yesterday.
You can read more about the complaint and those investigations here.
To view the official settlement documents, click here and scroll to the bottom of the page.